The road to discovery: An LSA alum reflects on how she discovered her life’s purpose and fulfillment in an unlikely place
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Jenise Williams hadn’t planned to be a teacher. A Detroiter born and raised, she comes from three generations of educators, individuals committed to giving back to their communities by supporting young students. But it wasn’t until she dug into her liberal arts experience and got involved with on-campus initiatives that Jenise recognized her passion for social justice could fit into the classroom.
A commitment to authenticity, a drive to make meaningful connections, and a strong growth mindset led Jenise to her current position: an Encore Fellow with Teach for America. Dive in and discover how Jenise went from hesitant mentor to committed educator, working with programs like Teach for America and It’s Great to Be a Girl to make her educational justice vision a reality.
Ashley: Hi Jenise, How are you doing?
Jenise: I'm doing okay, thanks for asking!
Ashley: Great! So, why don't you just start with telling me about you and your role with Teach For America.
Jenise: So, I graduated from LSA in 2018 and immediately joined Teach For America in June of that year. I got my start in Detroit, my home region, with the Encore fellowship, a program geared toward third and fourth year teachers that have just recently left the corps. Before I entered the core, I was a Campus Ambassador [for TFA] during my senior year at Michigan. As a Campus Ambassador, you visit different organizations and local classrooms and tell them more about Teach for America. It was a program that went beyond traditional recruiting: the goal was to really give folks access to information so they could make an educated decision about whether TFA was right for them.
Ashley: So, before becoming a Campus Ambassador, what other things did you do on campus to help you explore the industry of educational nonprofits? Did you always know you wanted to become a teacher?
Jenise: Yeah, so it’s funny. I'm a third-generation Detroiter and Detroit educator, but I had no intention of becoming a teacher. It wasn't until I got to Michigan and began exploring educational justice, through various classes and organizations, that I thought, ‘this is something I could see myself doing’. As a first-year, I was involved in a program called It's Great to Be A Girl, which was a mentoring program through the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI). The program no longer exists but it ran for over 15 years and it was geared towards sixth grade girls, teaching them about social justice, self empowerment, and pathways after high school. I worked as a mentor, or “Femtor”, and was then asked to be a site director. And that was my first time working that long with a group of students. I knew I was developing the tools to become a successful teacher but I still had no interest in becoming one. Flash forward to my senior year where I became a facilitator for the Intergroup Relations Program (IGR) on campus, a role that opened up an opportunity to co-facilitate the inaugural dialogue session. This opportunity together with being a Campus Ambassador for TFA, made me decide to seriously think about teaching as the path for me. However, I knew I wanted to make an impact and lift students up so applying for the TFA program was a compelling option.
Ashley: Definitely. So did you explore any other programs outside of Teach for America?
Jenise: Sure. I took a study abroad opportunity right before I went to Tulsa for Teach for America where I taught English in Morocco. I actually found the opportunity through the LSA Opportunity Hub. The program was called You Belong and I taught preschool students in Morocco which was definitely interesting as my first real teaching experience. Things like the language barrier, trying to get [the students] to learn something that wasn't familiar, and explaining English definitions versus Arabic made the experience memorable. I also utilized the Opportunity Hub resources as much so I could connect with alums (check out past Alum Advice videos). I took advantage of the Alum Connection events hosted by the Hub during my junior and senior year and I would ask questions like, ‘how did they make that transition to outside of the classroom?’ and ‘what was their career and educational trajectory like?’ (Connect with LSA alums now via LSA Connect)
Ashley: That's actually really cool. So, what did you do to differentiate yourself from the other candidates for TFA?
Jenise: I strongly believe in not reinventing the wheel. So the main thing I did was go back to the alums that I had been introduced to and asked them tips on how to become a strong candidate (see Hub resource on conducting an informational interview). The piece of advice that struck me the most was to think critically about my own story within education and what was motivating me to apply—and I really leaned into that. On the application you’re asked, “Why TFA?” So taking the time to be as thoughtful and honest as possible in writing that essay and really reflecting on what led me there and what motivated me to be in a classroom was critical because when I went in to interview, I was relaxed and at ease. I told my story, and explained the value I could add to a classroom. Doing that helped reduce my nervousness on interview day, and be proud of myself no matter the outcome.
Ashley: Yeah, definitely. So, what would be your best piece of advice for a new Teach For America core member?
Jenise: There are so many things I could say, but the main thing is to trust the process. Yes, you're a first-year teacher, and a first-year corps member, but everybody has to start somewhere. Making mistakes and failing is inevitable. What matters is how you learn to recover from those things and grow. I found that in this profession, most people don't want to see you fail. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and seek out help. Show yourself grace, be okay with failing, and ask for help when you need it.
Ashley: In your Teach For America role, how did you utilize your LSA degree to help you succeed?
Jenise: I had a few classes within LSA focusing on data analysis where you learn to collect data, synthesize it, and apply it. That is a huge part of my job as a teacher: constantly assessing student progress, including what they learned and what their learning needs are. My background in psychology also taught me how to be a critical thinker as a teacher. It helped me understand the study of people and the way people work, including things like intrinsic motivators and positive and negative reinforcement. All things I’m able to apply to the classroom. Most importantly, I use empathy to show my students that I care about them as human beings; I give them the space and support they need to succeed in the classroom. Just having that empathy, having that background knowledge and understanding of how our environments can shift our ability to show up, these are instrumental lessons I learned in the classroom that I'm still using today.
Ashley: Thank you for sharing all of that insight. Was there any other advice or wisdom you’d like to share with LSA students?
Jenise: Take the time to give back to your community, and find ways to show up for current LSA students. Having upperclassmen give me their time and talent definitely aided me and motivated me to give back in whatever ways that I could. So make sure that as you move up, you're trying to pull at least one person up with you, and that you're finding ways to give back to the LSA community, to the Michigan community. Because that's what keeps it going: it’s the people and programs that are pouring back and giving their time.
During her time as an undergraduate Psychology major, Jenise intentionally explored a career path in education by:
- Leading in It's Great to Be A Girl through OAMI where she taught 6th grade girls about social justice, self-empowerment, and their post-secondary options.
- Partnering with the LSA Opportunity Hub, Jenise gained her first in-the-field experience teaching English in Morocco through the Hub’s Internship Program.
- Engaging with the Aum Connection events, provided by the Opportunity Hub, helped Jenise continue to explore the education industry as a potential career choice.
- Connecting with Teach for America for the first time during her junior year. The relationship she developed with their college recruiter led to an opportunity to serve as a Campus Ambassador and ultimately, landed her a full-time role as a TFA Corps Member with Detroit Public Schools Community District.
Jenise’s guide to navigating the TFA recruiting process:
- Be authentic while telling your story. Focusing on why you are interested in becoming a core member will help soothe your interview nerves.
- Connect with alums of TFA and apply their shared wisdom and learnings so you can give yourself a competitive edge as a candidate.
- Don’t be afraid of failure, no matter the outcome. Use minor setbacks as opportunities to continue to foster your personal and professional growth.
The Hub’s Approach to Career Exploration:
- Industry Groups - Join an Industry Group to explore your career interests, get specialized industry resources, meet students and peer mentors, and access in-the-field opportunities that'll help you understand the realities of these working-world industries. Learn more about Industry Groups on the Hub’s website, or through LSA Connect.
- Student Groups - Identify one to two student groups that relate to your identity and explore the possibility of holding a leadership position. Use Maize Pages to browse U-M 1,400+ Student led organizations.
- Campus Jobs - Campus jobs allow students to gain their first professional experience and can often be used as leverage during your hiring process. Check out the Student Employment site to browse on campus offerings
- Most Impactful Courses - Choose Applied Liberal Arts classes, like ALA125 (first-years) and ALA325 (seniors), that allow you to actively explore the connection between your LSA degree, identity, and career aspirations. Click here to explore the Hub’s Applied Liberal Arts (ALA) offerings.
- Coaching - Coaching is an opportunity to receive direct feedback and support from one of the amazing Hub coaches on career development, internship searches, graduate applications etc. Click here to learn how to schedule an appointment or find out more about drop-in hours.
- Internships - An internship can help you explore career interests, build up your experience, expand your professional network, and increase your probability of finding meaningful opportunities after graduation. Explore summer internship opportunities still active on the LSA Opportunity Network.